It’s All ‘Bout the Base, ‘Bout the Base [1]

running with kenyans

Adharanand Finn spent 6 months in Iten, Kenya on a mission to discover or uncover why Kenyans dominate distance running around the globe.  Whether its the New York Marathon, the Olympics, the World Cross Country Championships, from the 800m to the marathon Kenyans dominate.

A runner himself, Finn had the opportunity to meet with Kenyan athletes and their coaches, but he also had the opportunity to train and live amongst elite runners.

Kenyan long-distance runners are arguably the best in the world. Is it the diet, the lifestyle – or anything to do with running barefoot to school?  In a follow up video to the book, elite marathon runner and Kenyan athlete manager Tom Payn and up-and-coming Kenyan athlete Boniface Kiprop Kongin tell Adharanand Finn, author of Running with the Kenyans, why their country has produced so many great runners…

Link to Adharanand Finn’s profile and blog at ‘theguardian‘.

Boniface started training informally by running to and from school. In rural Kenya, families don’t typically have cars, so running is simply how children get around. School for Boniface was 5km away and walking simply took too long; 5km, twice a day (not counting home for lunch) works out to weekly mileage of 50km.  If Boniface ran 46 weeks of the year (school is year round in Kenya) for all 8 years of elementary school, his training base would be in the range of 18,000 km.  If running to school continued through high school, then outside of any formal training program, he would have ran another 9,000+/- kms of mileage.

Think about that for a moment….  Canada at its most extreme width – from Cape Spear, Nfld to Mt. St. Elias in the Yukon – is 9,300km.  Base mileage for a Kenyan is the equivalent of having run across Canada, twice, and a third time when running to/from high school is included.

If the base of Kenyan runners is not already astounding, then consider that those who live and train in the Rift Valley Province – from where Kenya’s top athletes arise – are at altitude, which further develops their physiology and running efficiency.

For elite Kenyan runners – track, to cross country, to marathon runners – a full decade of training is the starting point for formal training, training for competition. It is from this starting point of a base of years and thousands of kilometers that African runners begin formal training, training to compete, training to win.

A decade of daily simple low intensity activity primes the physiology developing the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculo-skeletal and neural systems.  

Repetitive low intensity training develops agility, balance, coordination, and maintains flexibility so that efficient movement becomes normal for the developing athlete.

In time, this training leads to fluid, graceful, effortless movement that is referred to as “talent” or “natural ability”.

In the book “Running with Kenyans”, Finn shares that there hasn’t yet been a Kenyan born and raised in a city who has become a champion runner.  Children of Kenyans who were champions on the international road running circuit do not become champions either, as their parents purchase a life of convenience in the city, removing them from the formative rural life.


With a minimalist life dedicated to a single focus an undesirable pill to swallow in Western culture, researchers in search of a short cut, in search of a monetizable performance solution have performed genetic research numerous times on elite Kenyan athletes in hopes of finding a running gene.  No running gene has been identified to date despite efforts by scientists from numerous countries.

A running gene!  A typical Kenyan elite runner logs a decade+ of training, tens of thousands of miles and we go looking for an excuse, for an easy explanation which short cuts countless hours of dedicated training and endless sacrifices made by athletes striving for athletic excellence. I challenge anyone to train for a decade amassing 20,000 km transforming your physiology and psychology and not find comments about loopholes – genetic or otherwise – as demeaning and disrespectful.

Champions are not born, they are developed, trained, nurtured, and supported over a period no less than one, perhaps two decades.

Athletes – both amateur and professional – who seek their true peak potential need to realize that excellence is not found in the latest and lightest racing flats, trending sports nutrition or fad diets, in so called ‘new’ training routines such as USRPT, CrossFit, Tabata, or any other repackaging of HIIT training, and most definitely not in gadgets, apps, nor online training software.  There is no coach who possesses training ‘secrets’, and no athlete is ‘destined’.

There are no short cuts.  There is no such thing as luck.  Success = opportunity + preparation.

Building a base, developing yourself so that you are capable of graduating to strength training, HIIT, and advanced technique requires years and years, thousands and thousands of meters or kilometers of thoughtful development of physical literacy, aerobic capacity, and flexibility.

The fact that you can use your health as collateral, exchanging it for performance beyond your current physiological capability is no short cut.  In the end, what happens is that you compromise your health while failing to get anywhere close to your potential.  In the end, you will have neither your health, nor have experienced your potential, and you will have set yourself back years as your body and/or mind call on the credit line underwritten by your health. Whatever medals, trophies, and finish line photos you acquire along the way fade fast as the cost you paid for them becomes a gamble that you realize didn’t pay off.

The illusion of a short cut is powerful, its deception strong.

There are no short cuts to excellence, to your potential.

The long way is not a burden to peak performers, they have come to understand that the process, the journey, and all the experiences along the way are the reward, as such, they have learnt to enjoy the process of becoming, developing, growing, stretching themselves.

1 thought on “It’s All ‘Bout the Base, ‘Bout the Base [1]

  1. MGrodski Post author

    Why does Ethiopia raise so many top notch distance runners?

    Sinkeneh thinks Ethiopia has produced such great distance runners because kids here always had to run to get to school. “I was lucky I only had to run half an hour a day. Gebrselassie had to run six miles to school. Maybe our runners won’t be so good now they don’t have to run great distances to school.”


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